Click here for a holiday treat, every day from PIX11

Brooklyn veteran loses his benefits after being mistakenly declared dead

BROOKLYN — You’re probably not aware of the problem, unless you’re one of the thousands of veterans who have been mistakenly declared dead by the Veteran’s Administration.

An astonishing  4,200 vets, who are very much alive, have been mistakenly classified as deceased and had their VA benefits cut off during a recent five-year period, according to a government report.

The VA says it has changed its procedures for confirming deaths. However, mistakes are still being made.  Army war veteran Carmelo Rodriguez, a Brooklyn man, knows all about it.

Last December, the VA sent a letter to his Brooklyn home. It said “We have been notified of the death of Carmelo I. Rodriguez”.  His wife received a check for “Burial Benefits” and a “Surviving Spouse Payment”.  At first, Carmelo was just annoyed by the VA’s mistake. But that soon turned to anger.

"All of my benefits were cut and that’s kind of when I freaked out," he said.

What makes it worse is the VA  passed on the misinformation to other government agencies, including the IRS and the Social Security Administration.

“I have to fight for everything now, my military benefits, my pension, my driver’s license, my bank accounts,” Carmelo said. “Hell, I can’t even get a credit report and it’s been six months now.”

Carmelo created an internet vlog to document his frustrating efforts to prove he’s still alive, starting with a call to the VA, during which he was put on hold for 40 minutes. He was sent to its Manhattan office where he testified in writing “I am not deceased.”

After showing lots of I.D.  and then waiting a couple of weeks, the VA finally corrected its error. Carmelo’s benefits were reinstated, but his problems were far from over.

After filing his income tax return, Carmelo was contacted by the I.R.S., which was still under the misimpression he was dead.

“The VA sent them documentation that I had died at one of the VA hospitals,” he said.

The IRS told Carmelo he was under investigation for possible identity fraud and his tax return was withheld.  It took months, he said, to straighten out that mess.

When Carmelo contacted PIX11, it appeared he might have to drop out of Berkeley College in Manhattan, where he was enrolled in the MBA program because the Department of Education also thought he was dead. That apparently is the reason his application for student loans would not go through.

The good news is, we contacted Berkeley College and the president of the college got involved. Carmelo says he’s just been told his student loans are in the process of being approved.

You can view Carmelo’s vlog at www.adeadman.com.

If you’ve got a story for me, send an email to whatashame@pix11.com.